The Red Star over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture (1905-55) exhibition at Tate Modern is a fascinating collection of visual works collected by the graphic designer David King.

Set mainly in the aftermath of the 1917 October Revolution of the Bolsheviks when the Russian Empire was reshaped by communism into the USSR, it documents the visual culture that emerged under the radically new way of life.

There are some really positive things to take from this exhibition and the way it documents the hopes and ideals of a new industrial nation forged out of civil war and revolution from urban and rural fiefdoms with few shared values. The avant-garde used art and architecture as tools for social change capable of creating a new order for citizens. No longer was art – often iconic – restricted to the ruling elite and the wealthy. Instead prints, posters, journals and photobooks became accessible to all. This shared visual imagery dominated Soviet life and appeared in public places, factories and workers’ clubs. It used bold imagery and colours, and short, punchy text, as large swathes of the population (almost three quarters) were illiterate and only a quarter of children ever went to school. In Tsarist Russia the education of the masses was neither necessary nor desirable as capitalism was little developed and did not need a literate working class. Education gives people expectations of a better life that TsaristRussia could never satisfy.

So, in Soviet Russia, people were educated. Soviet education was both for higher productivity but also to prepare people to be good citizens in a communist society, encouraging them to let go of attitudes, towards work and possessions for instance, which capitalism had fostered.

Going hand in hand was the education of the masses and art for the masses. In the early days, the work was – well – avant garde. El Lissitzky was a key player in bringing art to the masses. With his mentor Kasimir Malevich’s he developed Suprematism.  In turn, he heavily influenced the Bauhaus and Constructivism and 20th Century graphic design. He blended non-figurative forms and text into a single work. Probably his best knows work, and one of my favourites, is ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ – a monumental image of a power surge. He also paved the way for photomontage and social realism. There was also the couple Rodchenko and Stepanova who heavily influenced the new art. Working together for their whole lives, they moved from symbolism through abstract-geometrical painting and drawing to Constructivism. The Constructivists believed art should directly reflect the modern industrial world. There was also Gustav Klutzis and his wife Valentina Kulagina. They are predominantly known for their photomontages including peasants and workers urging support for the new ideal – sometimes images of themselves to save money.

However, although the exhibition documents hope and idealism about the new order, agitation and propaganda (agitprop) loom large. Agitprop trains, adorned with posters and slogans and equipped with cinemas, theatres, libraries and printing facilities took the message of the new order to remote parts of the USSR. Whilst the Suprematists were closely associated with the Revolution, their work stalled under Stalin’s imposition of social realism. Similarly, Constructivism was suppressed in Russia in the 1920s but came to the West (and indeed St Ives) via Naum Gabo. Stalin wasn’t interested in the arts, only in the way it served his narrative of state control and totalitarianism. This exhibition neatly brings this to the fore.

And if propaganda was rife within the USSR, the imagery given to the world is something else. The party approved works at the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris in 1937 gives an important insight into how Stalin wanted the world to see the USSR – showcasing the great communist project of worker power, innovation, industry and productivity. This projected world image however hid a much darker underbelly.

There’s a room showing rare footage of Trotsky. Following the death of Lenin, General Secretary of the Party, in 1924, Stalin his unwelcome successor, removed Trotsky from power and erased him from the public records – eventually arranging his gruesome death by ice pick. It’s strange that the footage of Trotsky in his powerful element should survive but it’s very illuminating.

Whilst it was obvious that Trotsky was an opponent of Stalin that the latter would want to remove, killings were not restricted to obvious political opponents. The aforementioned Klutzis, once heralded as a state artist became seen to be subversive. He taught, wrote, and produced political art for the Soviet state from the early 1920s but as the political order degraded through the 1920s and 1930s, Klutzis and Kulagina came under increasing pressure to limit their subject matter and techniques. Once joyful, revolutionary and utopian, by 1935 their art was devoted to furthering Stalin’s cult of personality. Despite his active and loyal service to the party, Klutzis was arrested and shot dead in 1938.

Stalin’s Great Terror is well documented. Over 1.6 million arrested, around 700,000 executed, and others sent to the Gulag labour camps. There were the notorious show trials of 1936-8. What King has amassed however personifies this massacre. There are photos of the condemned with short descriptions of their, equally short, lives. These are salutary. Just one example is the prison mugshot of Tamara Litsinkaia with the words:

  • Born 1910 in Moscow
  • Not a member of the Party
  • Student
  • Arrested on 8 February 1937
  • Sentenced to death and shot on 25 August 1937
  • Rehabilitated on 1 March 1958.

Life was brutal and people were understandably terrified. Most did all that they could to avoid coming to the attention of the secret police – the OGPU which became the KGB. The photographs that show the simple scratching out of faces from photographs by ordinary citizens document this terror. Citizens were fearful of repercussions if they were seen to support enemies of the people.  Stalin of course could afford professional editing in photographs and film to create the disappeared (as with Trotsky). Perhaps this was the precursor to Photoshop.

This terror was propagated visually by the regime. There is a poster in the show that demonstrates that very effectively. The words?  ‘Don’t chatter. Gossip borders on Treason.’

When Hitler invaded in 1941, the Soviet propaganda machine immediately moved to mobilise the masses into its cause. As Stalin couldn’t be relied upon as an image to inspire unquestioning loyalty, the concept of the Motherland began to be used. The imagery from this time drew upon the civil war that preceded the USSR but re-imagined it.

The USSR was a master at repurposing. For example, in wanting to enlist muslims into the Red Army, the hammer and sickle were replaced by the crescent moon and star of Islam. Such subtle re-purposing of imagery was widespread and effective.

The Great Terror and the education of the masses went hand in hand, side by side. Which is counter-intuitive. Surely they’re mutually exclusive. How can you liberate on the one hand and supress on the other? Clever as it was, the great experiment did fail eventually.

But it all takes on new resonance with the zeitgeist of fake news, alternative facts, Photoshop, Russia’s alleged role in Trump and Brexit, the continued Russian problem with its former Muslim territories, ISIS, the War on Terror. What is fact, and what fiction? Who knows what is real, and what not? Who knows which side anyone is really on? Are there, in fact, any sides? Or just the ruling elite – of whatever creed, colour or continent, and the rest of us?

Stalin may have died in1953, followed by the Thaw, but his spirit lives on.

Long live artistic freedom, hope and idealism in the reign of terror and the inextricable rise of the propaganda machine.

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